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The power of mentors

Story and photos by Shiloh Francis. The article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of Elevate and is being used with permission.

Bev Warne laughs during her interview with Elevate.
Bev Warne laughs during her interview with Elevate.

At only 9 years old, Bev (Stabber) Warne was walking down Rapid City’s Main Street and read a sign: “No Indians Allowed.” She did not understand why she and her family would be treated in such a way. “I grew curious about why people would view me so differently,” Bev explains. “Where did they come from that they could feel that way?”

You can watch part of the interview with Bev Warne at Elevate.

Today, Bev has a calm, nurturing spirit about her. She credits much of her success to her grandfather, who would use songs to teach the seven Lakota values: fortitude, wisdom, courage, generosity, honor, respect, and humility. “He would sing us stories,” she reflects. “The drum, matching our heartbeat would engrain those lessons into our hearts.”  These values helped root Bev into the confidence of knowing herself so that when faced with adversity, she would respond with curiosity rather than anger.

Following that incident on Main Street, Bev found herself in the library, speaking with the librarian who Bev would now credit as being an early mentor in her life. “I walked in and I did not know what a library was. All I knew was that I wanted to read, to learn.” The librarian was patient. She explained what a library card was and helped her find books on “other people” – the best way 9-year-old Bev could explain those who looked different from her and her family. From that moment Bev was not only curious but inspired. She wanted to see the world.

But how would a poor girl, living in a tent camp along Rapid Creek, be able to travel? Even attending school seemed improbable due to cost.

Bev Warne holds a picture of herself when she attended St. John's McNamara School of Nursing
Bev Warne holds a picture of herself from when she attended St. John's McNamara School of Nursing.

Fortunately, another mentor would enter Bev’s life: Sister Benedict. Having met through the industrial relations course at Rapid City High School, Sister Benedict saw Bev’s dream of becoming a nurse and helped her secure a scholarship. This allowed Bev to attend St. John's McNamara School of Nursing and graduate in 1962.

While the scholarship was important, Sister Benedict helped Bev in other ways as well. While studying in the Industrial Relations program, Bev went to check on a patient only to be kicked out of the room because she was Native American. Sister Benedict would not let that stand. She spoke to the patient and shared words that would still inspire Bev more than 60 years later: “You must shore up your courage and get back in there.” A gentle reminder of the values her grandfather had been teaching her since she was young.

Changing Roles
Following graduation, Bev and her husband traveled to Arizona, Thailand and Mexico where Bev would continue to experience moments of impact and find mentors along the way. The majority of their time was spent in Arizona where they raised their two sons. In 2009, Bev had retired from her career teaching at Arizona State University’s College of Nursing and returned home to South Dakota. But retirement was short lived. It was time for Bev to pass on the lessons she had been learning along the way. She received a call to lead the creation of the SDSU Native American Nursing Education Center (NANEC).

Walking in to the NANEC on Mount Rushmore Road, you cannot help but feel a sense of calm. The subtle smell of sage fills the air. Staff are warm and inviting. There is a mini-library with nursing books and closets full of study material to grab as you settle into a private study pod.

But the favorite room of all? Wicozani Otipi – the welcoming room.

Snacks donated by the faculty and community are free and available for the students. There’s a plush couch encouraging you to relax and settle in. It truly feels like a home away from home.

snacks are available for students in the Native American Nursing Education Center.
Snacks are available for students in the Native American Nursing Education Center.

Having a calm, welcoming place can make all the difference for a student stressed out about an upcoming exam. A place to take a deep breath and escape the worries of the world for a moment, while also knowing there is a listening ear and partner in problem-solving. The center can assist with chemistry, anatomy and even groceries to get through the weekend.

When the NANEC program was beginning in early 2014, Oglala Lakota College had conducted a survey. 200 students had expressed a desire to become a nurse. Only four would graduate. Poverty is a significant hardship these students face. But more than that, they lacked opportunity and mentors.

That staggering statistic is only compounded when looking at Rapid City’s labor force. Currently, only 2.5 - 3.7% of nurses identify as Native American. Compare that to the 12% of our city’s population and the racial disparity is clear; people are not entering the workforce at the same level as they live in this world. And moreover, these high demand occupations would most likely help to lift them out of poverty.

We need more nurses that reflect the population being served. And NANEC is here to help.

Making Progress
Today, there are 30 students in the NANEC program, working toward their dream of becoming a nurse. Some, even setting their sights beyond the RN program, at graduate school and becoming nurse practitioners. NANEC provides mentors, like Bev, who find innovative ways to retain students.

For example, using donated funds, in the form of gift cards, to support a student with gas or grocery money. Or teaching students to be advocates for themselves. “We cannot keep pain tucked away,” explains Bev. As she encourages students to address conflict rather than shy away from it. A lesson she had learned from Sister Benedict.

Or the time a student was getting ready to take an important exam, only to find her car had a flat tire. While the stress was certainly high, she did not lose all hope. She had a support system she could rely on. With one call to Bev, better known as Unci (oonchee, Lakota for grandmother), she not only made it to her test on time. She passed. And found herself with a brand-new tire.

This is the heart and soul behind the SDSU Native American Nursing Education Center. Its mission is to provide a nurturing and collaborative environment where intentional mentoring inspires Native American nursing students to thrive and flourish. But if you ask Bev, it’s about more than making sure these aspiring nurses get good grades. It’s about finding moments of impact to help them discover who they are; to be successful both in and out of the classroom. “It is about instilling hope,” she adds, and helping them to do even the smallest of things with joy.

The team at NANEC is small, with six staff members, several of which are only part time. But ask any student, they will tell you their impact is mighty. One even asked Bev why it seemed she was always there. Bev could only smile as she explained, “I’m here, because you’re here.”